By YOSHIHIRO ANDO/ Senior Staff Writer
November 27, 2021 at 06:30 JST
The young Canadian was filled with both excitement and dread after the Waseda University baseball team manager said, “Your turn.”
Ken Nguyen had always dreamed of taking the mound for the university since he saw a Waseda phenom blowing away batters on TV.
Nguyen’s journey to his on-field debut was not a typical one for a ballplayer at the sports powerhouse. For example, he first had to pass the university’s tough entrance exam for non-athlete students.
On Oct. 2, Nguyen, 21, got his chance at the hallowed Jingu Baseball Stadium in a game of the autumn championship of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League.
Nguyen was penned into the roster for first time in the game against the University of Tokyo, and the right-hander began warming up in the bullpen in the sixth inning.
In the bottom of the seventh, Waseda’s starting pitcher, senior Soma Tokuyama, developed a leg cramp, and skipper Satoru Komiyama, 56, called on Nguyen to enter in relief.
The sophomore shouted “yes, sir” and rushed out of the dugout.
“I was really nervous and distraught,” Nguyen recalled.
But he said Tokuyama helped to calm his nerves by saying: “You should not feel so tense. Just do what you always do. You simply need to pitch in your own style.”
Nguyen inherited a runner on third base with one out and a count of two balls and one strike. He walked that batter.
He struck out the next hitter looking. But he again made the situation stickier by plunking the following batter to load the bases.
However, Nguyen bore down, and another called third strike ended the threat and cemented his scoreless debut.
“The only thing I felt was gratitude for being given the chance to pitch on the mound of Jingu Stadium,” Nguyen said. “And (senior Hisashige) Iwamoto helped me excellently as the catcher.”
Komiyama started speaking about Nguyen toward the end of the news conference following Waseda’s victory.
“Are you guys satisfied? I am thinking of talking about Nguyen,” Komiyama said. “He wanted to play baseball at Waseda University, entered the School of International Liberal Studies as an ordinary student from Canada, and showed up in front of us to become a team member.”
Komiyama continued: “He has had many ups and downs. Today must be a very memorable day for him.”
INSPIRED BY YUKI SAITO
Nguyen was born in Ottawa to a Japanese mother and a father originally from Vietnam.
He stayed at his grandparents’ home in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, where he attended an elementary school from the second to sixth grade.
He started playing Japanese baseball using rubber balls with a local team, Ueno Club, when he was in his third year.
Around that time, Nguyen watched a Tokyo Big6 Baseball League game on TV.
“I saw Yuki Saito performing,” Nguyen said. “He is my idol.”
Saito, the “Handkerchief Prince,” starred at Waseda University until his graduation in 2011. Before university, Saito outdueled future New York Yankees’ pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in an epic performance at the National High School Baseball Championship.
Saito later joined the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and announced his retirement this year.
When Nguyen told his mother about his desire to attend Waseda University, she said it is a “very good school.”
After Nguyen completed elementary school, he returned to the Canadian capital for junior and senior high school.
He continued with baseball in Ottawa, pitching and playing second base at St. Joseph High School.
In winters, when temperatures can drop to as low as minus 30 degrees in Ottawa, he played basketball but not ice hockey, the most popular sport in Canada.
“I was poor at skating so I did not play the sport,” Nguyen said, smiling.
STILL LEARNING ETIQUETTE
After returning to Tokyo, Nguyen enrolled in Waseda University in 2020 and was determined to be a part of its baseball team.
“There were many ups and downs,” Nguyen said. “I was initially puzzled by the hierarchical relationship of seniors and juniors, as the practice cannot be found in Canada. Things deemed as standard there could be regarded as rude in Japan.
“I am still in the course of learning etiquette.”
Nguyen said his teammates from the same year have always supported him.
When Nguyen was asked by an older player to buy “a mosquito incense coil,” he did not know what that was and asked for help from his teammates.
“I could keep working hard thanks to the same-year members’ assistance,” Nguyen said.
Aside from bug-repellent tools, Nguyen said there are many other factors to learn and respect from student baseball in Japan.
“Japanese baseball has an established discipline,” he said. “I feel like I was playing a new sport. Perspectives on baseball are totally different.
“Playing here is fun because instructions are issued from a more technical standpoint, allowing me to improve step by step.”
Nguyen said he is fortunate to play under the guidance of Komiyama, a former pro ballplayer who once played in the major leagues.
“His speaking in English at times is of great help for me,” Nguyen said. “He often encourages me and shows the proper pitching form. I was taught how to throw a cutter as well.”
In his second appearance at the Oct. 16 game against Meiji University, Nguyen’s fastball was clocked at 143 kph, compared with under 130 kph recorded just after he entered Waseda University.
His private life also changed earlier this year.
Last year, Nguyen lived alone at the home in Taito Ward where he had spent his elementary school days.
His brother, Kai, who is one year younger, started attending Sophia University in Tokyo in September, so their parents decided to relocate to Japan to live with their children.
“My mother cook meals,” Nguyen said. “I love every dish my mother makes. They are wonderful.”
Kai pitches on a club team at Sophia University, so the siblings can work out and play catch together.
“My younger brother is slightly taller than I am,” said the 183-centimeter Nguyen. “I lose in that respect.”
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